Diving From the Heavens

A 747 Drops Six Miles Within Two Minutes

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William Peacock had just finished a breakfast of Chinese beef and noodles when he felt the plane "shudder, like we were going into a mild stall." His first instinct was to return to his seat just ten feet away, but even that proved a chore. "The aircraft had started to turn a very hard left, and there was this incredible horizontal pressure pushing my entire body to the right." China Airlines Flight 006 from Taipei to Los Angeles, with 243 passengers and 25 crew members aboard, was going down. "Dishes crashed against the walls and floor," Peacock recounted. "The baggage compartments opened. Window shades were forced down by the vibration." ,

Peacock, 43, a Viet Nam veteran, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and an Assistant Secretary of the Army from 1980 to 1981, had "flown with many a test pilot," and was able to give a vivid, technical account of what happened next. "By the time I returned to my seat, the horizontal force was at least five Gs (five times that of gravity), making it impossible for me to fasten my seat belt . . . Then it eased up a bit to maybe one or two Gs. But the plane was continuing downward. Clearly the pilot was trying to pull up, but I didn't know how on earth he could do it. It was like being in a high-speed Porsche on an incredible turn.

"I prayed harder than at any time of my life. On the one hand, I wondered what the impact would be like. But I also was congratulating myself for buying my ticket with my American Express card, which gives me $500,000 in life insurance. I figured that would just about cover the mortgage on my family's house in St. Louis."

Up in the cockpit, crew members had other things on their minds. "The five of us were trying everything to steady the plane," said Pilot Ming Yuan Ho, 55. Cruising at around 41,000 feet about 350 miles northwest of San Francisco, the Boeing 747 SP suddenly lost full power in one engine, and the other three began to operate with reduced thrust. The 325-ton bird dropped six miles in two minutes, practically turning upside down as it rolled to the right. The force of the fall ripped off the doors of the landing-gear compartment, and may have sent the 7-ft. by 4-ft. metal sheets tearing through the stabilizing wings at the aircraft's tail. The wild buffeting also bent part of the steering mechanism in the right wing.

Ming, who has 30 years' piloting experience, said that the engines regained power "miraculously" somewhere about 11,000 feet above the Pacific--or about 44 seconds before the plane would have crashed. The jumbo jet leveled itself, and in a voice one traveler described as "pretty shaky," Ming asked passengers to secure their seat belts. An hour later, the 747 made an emergency landing at San Francisco International airport, on wheels that were intact despite the damage to the jet's underbelly. On touchdown, Ming received a round of heartfelt applause; he in turn apologized for any "inconvenience and discomfort." Fifty passengers suffered minor injuries during the dive, and two flight attendants were hospitalized with back injuries.

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